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General Jul 1, 2021 | 11:48 PMby Colin McGourty

Magnus Carlsen celebrates 10 years unbroken as world no. 1

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen has now been the world no. 1 on every rating list for the past decade since July 2011, an unbeaten streak that will now eclipse Garry Kasparov’s two decade-long streaks as world no. 1 from 1986 to 1996 and 1996 until he dropped off the list after his retirement in 2005. Although Magnus has suffered scares — for instance any loss to Fabiano Caruana in the 2018 World Championship match would have taken Fabi top — he’s remarkably been unbroken world no. 1 for a decade on the live rating list as well.

When Magnus was recently asked about crossing 10 years as the consecutive world no. 1, he was actually surprised.

I didn’t even know that, but for me I guess it was more special either January 2010, when I was officially no. 1 for the first time, or in, I think, it was October 2008, when I was unofficially no. 1 for the first time, but it’s been a long time!

From the time Magnus topped the official January 2010 FIDE rating list there were two periods when 15th World Champion Vishy Anand regained the top spot, with the last list with Vishy top coming in May 2011.

At the time the lists were published once every two months, and in July 2011 Magnus had taken over.

Since then Magnus has always been no. 1 on every published list, and has also topped the live rating list that’s updated after every game played.

As you can imagine, such a feat puts him in the most rarefied of company. Since the official FIDE rating lists were first published in 1971 just seven players have topped the list, and just three of them are comparable to Magnus in time at the top.

The world no. 1s since ratings were introduced | source: Wikipedia

At 132 months as world no. 1, Magnus has surpassed Anatoly Karpov’s 102 months as world no. 1, but he still has almost exactly a decade to go to match Garry Kasparov’s 255 months — 21 years and 3 months! Will Magnus spend another decade as no. 1? “Unlikely, but we’ll see”, he says in the video above, but when it comes to unbroken streaks as world no. 1 he can claim already to have surpassed Garry.

Anatoly Karpov spent 8 years as unbroken world no. 1 from 1976-1983, but Garry first at least matched that in a streak stretching from 1986-1993. Officially the streak ended there, but only because FIDE removed Kasparov and Nigel Short from their rating lists in 1994 after they broke away from FIDE to play their 1993 World Championship match. Garry was still effectively the no. 1 until January 1996, a full decade, when the 20-year-old Vladimir Kramnik matched Garry’s 2775 rating but took the number 1 spot on the tiebreak of having played more games.

That meant a new streak began when Garry was no. 1 again on the July 1996 rating list, this time lasting until March 2006 (he only dropped off the rating list a year after his retirement in March 2005) — he no longer featured on the April 2006 rating list. That made it an official streak of 9 years and 9 months.

Magnus, who on the July 2021 rating list has a 2847 rating and leads no. 2 Fabiano Caruana by 41 points, is now stretching his streak beyond a decade, with no immediate end in sight. When asked what now, he responded:

I don’t have any particular plans, but I’m at least happy that the gap is pretty wide again now after Caruana lost a few points in Romania, so for the moment it’s not a big concern.

Given Magnus has been no. 1 for so long, it’s perhaps more interesting to look at who’s been in the no. 2 spot in the past decade. There are just nine players.

NameFEDTime as no. 2Smallest gapBiggest gapFirst no. 2Last no. 2
Fabiano Caruana52 months371Oct 2014July 2021
Levon Aronian32 months1072Jan 2012Dec 2017
Vladimir Kramnik12 months1074Jan 2013Jul 2017
Viswanathan Anand10 months472Jul 2011Sep 2015
Wesley So5 months1220Mar 2017Aug 2017
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave3 months2344Aug 2016Sep 2017
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov3 months2934Feb 2018Apr 2018
Veselin Topalov2 months3147Nov 2015Dec 2015
Hikaru Nakamura1 month3434Oct 2015Oct 2015

As you can see, between them Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian have spent 7 of the 10 years as world no. 2, and they’ve both been in touching distance over that time. As Magnus himself commented:

There have been a lot of games, or even just moves, that I could have lost the no. 1 spot. For instance, in the match against Caruana there were a number of games where I was struggling, so the fact that it’s been so long, there’s obviously some luck involved there as well!

Let’s take a brief look at some of the highlights from the last decade.

January 2013: Carlsen breaks Garry’s record — Magnus scored an unbeaten +5 to win the London Chess Classic in December 2012, taking his official rating on the January list to 2861, surpassing Garry Kasparov’s peak of 2851.

October 2013: Magnus opens up his biggest gap — a massive 74-point gap to Vladimir Kramnik, with only Magnus in the 2800 club.

May 2014: Magnus hits what so far is his peak rating of 2882

October 2014: Caruana bursts onto the scene — Fabiano Caruana stormed up to world no. 2 for the first time after an amazing seven wins in a row start to the Sinquefield Cup, held in August-September 2014.

To start with 7/7 in a 6-player field where your opponents were Carlsen, Topalov, MVL, Aronian and Nakamura was staggering

While on the September 2014 rating list Magnus led 2nd place Aronian by 66 points, in October he led Fabi by just 19.

December 2016: Tough World Championship cuts the gap — Magnus managing only to tie the 2016 match against the lower-rated Sergey Karjakin saw him lose points to find himself only 17 points ahead of Fabiano Caruana. That gap would close to 11 by February, while Wesley So also threatened to take over the no. 1 spot. He wasn’t alone.

July 2017: Kramnik almost makes it — For veteran Vladimir Kramnik to be the one to topple Magnus, just as he’d spoilt Kasparov’s streak 20 years earlier, would have been remarkable, but it was very close to happening. When Magnus resigned against Big Vlad in Round 7 of Norway Chess the gap between the players was a mere 6.4 rating points.

Magnus Carlsen resigns against Vladimir Kramnik, with his no. 1 spot hanging by a thread | photo: Lennart Ootes

In the next round Kramnik was doing well against MVL while Magnus was struggling against Karjakin, and if those trends had turned into decisive results Kramnik would have been no. 1 on the live rating list. Instead Magnus won while Vladimir lost, though Kramnik’s last-round win over Giri meant the gap on the July rating list was just 10 points.

October 2018: Magnus almost goes into the match as the world no. 2

Ding Liren could have been the man to end Magnus Carlsen's stay at no. 1 | photo: Niki Riga

The European Club Cup was Magnus’ World Championship match warm-up, but it almost became the graveyard of his no. 1 spot. The most dramatic moment came when he blundered a crucial pawn in the penultimate round against Ding Liren, who at the time was on a 92-game unbeaten streak.

The computer evaluations were climbing to almost +4 in Ding’s favour, and a win for the Chinese star would have cost Magnus the no. 1 spot, but somehow Magnus held on, as he did in a very shaky last-round encounter with Peter Svidler. It meant he’d go into the London World Championship match against Fabiano Caruana with the slimmest of 3-point leads on the rating list.

November 2018: 12 draws save the no. 1 spot — The 3-point rating difference meant that draws would make no difference to either player’s rating, but if Fabiano Caruana had at any point taken the lead in the match he’d have become the live world no. 1. As Magnus mentioned, it had been close, though fortunately for Magnus, Fabi wasn’t Stockfish in disguise.

January 2019: Jorden saves the day — Magnus went into 2019 with just a 7-point lead over Fabiano, and it had dwindled to 3 points again as he drew the first four games in Wijk aan Zee, making it an astonishing 21 classical draws in a row for the World Champion. 

A draw against Jorden van Foreest would have cost more points, while a loss would have conceded the no. 1 spot, but in the end Jorden’s decision to test Magnus in the Sveshnikov line he’d relied on for the World Championship match somewhat predictably backfired. Of a later choice in the game, the watching Jan Gustafsson commented:

Poor Jorden, I haven't seen a Dutchman do so much damage to himself since Van Gogh!

Magnus was back on track.

August 2019: Magnus is back — That game was the start of a wonderful half year for Magnus, who again and again went on winning streaks against the world’s best players, playing a brand of attacking chess we hadn’t seen so often in the past from the World Champion. He picked that out himself as the most impressive part of the last decade:

The highlight still for me has been the first half of 2019, when everything sort of clicked, and I had also my joint highest rating of all time. I would say that was the highlight.

He matched his 2882 rating on the August 2019 rating list, when he led Caruana by 64 points. Since then his lead hasn’t dropped to less than 20 points (when Fabi reached 2842 in February 2020), and after Caruana’s struggles in the Superbet Chess Classic in Budapest, Magnus goes into his next decade with a 41-point lead.

Will Magnus go on for another decade like Garry? We’ll see, but for now it’s notable that when asked about celebrating, Magnus was more interested in celebrating another record-chasing youngster, Abhimanyu Mishra, the world's youngest ever grandmaster.

I’m not going to celebrate more than giving it a nod and like “hah, that’s a nice thing!” But I will say huge congratulations to Abhi Mishra from the United States, who became the youngest grandmaster of all time. It’s a pretty nice achievement, I would say especially considering that he went to Hungary to play basically non-stop, I feel like for a couple of months now, and to get his norms. I could see on the one hand that gives you a better chance to get the norms, but it also means that these tournaments are practically organised for you to achieve this particular aim, so it also puts a lot of pressure on you, so I’m really impressed that he achieved this feat.

Magnus wasn’t surprised that Abhimanyu had said he works 12 hours a day, since he’d also had a childhood consumed by chess.

Certainly when I was 12 there was very little deliberate practice, as you call it, but I certainly was doing something chess-related non-stop. It sounds like he’s somebody who has a lot of love for chess and has the potential to be a very strong player.

What does he think of Abhimanyu’s play?

From what I can see he’s a typical young player in the sense that he calculates well, he fights well, and he can sometimes misevaluate positions, but I also think we shouldn’t proclaim anybody who’s 12 years old a future World Champion. I don’t think that’s healthy, but it’s a good start!

If Magnus does stick around long enough to challenge Garry Kasparov’s record for the overall time spent as world no. 1, we could still get a Carlsen-Mishra World Championship match, but of course a lot of planets would have to align for that to happen. It’s better just to take things as they come, and the records will take care of themselves!

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